Two Years After Eric Garner's Death, Ramsey Orta, Who Filmed Police, Is Only One Heading to Jail

The man who filmed the police killing of Eric Garner, Ramsey Orta, is now heading to jail for four years on unrelated charges—making him the only person at the scene of Garner’s killing who will serve jail time. Last week Orta took a plea deal on weapons and drug charges. He says he has been repeatedly arrested and harassed by cops since he filmed the fatal police chokehold nearly two years ago. We speak to Eric Garner’s daughter, Erica Garner, and Matt Taibbi, award-winning journalist with Rolling Stone magazine. He’s working on a book on Eric Garner’s case.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Video made by Laron Murray and The Fortune Society media team featuring the final words of Eric Garner over John Coltrane’s "Alabama." This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we turn now to another police killing, this one here in New York. Two years ago this week, Eric Garner died in Staten Island after officers wrestled him to the ground, pinned him down and applied a fatal chokehold.

POLICE OFFICER 1: Put your hand behind your head!

ERIC GARNER: I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!

RAMSEY ORTA: Once again, police beating up on people.

POLICE OFFICER 2: Back up. Back up and get on those steps.

RAMSEY ORTA: OK. JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The man who filmed the police killing of Eric Garner, Ramsey Orta, is now heading to jail for four years on unrelated charges—making him the only person at the scene of Garner’s killing who will serve jail time. Last week, Orta took a plea deal on weapons and drug charges. He says he has been repeatedly arrested and harassed by cops since he filmed the fatal police chokehold nearly two years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric Garner’s death spurred protests over New York Police Department’s use of excessive force, its policy of cracking down on low-level offenses. Eric Garner’s family reached a $5.9 million settlement with New York City last July. To talk more about where the case stands today and the fact that Ramsey Orta will be going to jail, and also Bernie Sanders’ concession to Hillary Clinton—Eric Garner’s daughter, Erica Garner, who joins us today, campaigned with Bernie Sanders. He had a TV campaign ad centered on her story. We’re also joined by Matt Taibbi, the award-winning journalist with Rolling Stone magazine, working on a book on Eric Garner’s case, the author of a number of books, including The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I’m so sorry, Erica, as you sit here to see video after video of police killing culminating right now, and once again seeing the video of your father gasping and saying, "I can’t breathe." But you have been speaking out publicly about this for almost the full two years. You haven’t stopped.

ERICA GARNER: Yes. I’ve protested. I’ve spoke on panels. I traveled across this nation. I exhaust all avenues. I even endorsed Bernie Sanders to get my message out. And it’s like we keep having a conversation I exhausted for two years. And, you know, how much talking do we need to have? The Black Lives Matter movement been very compassionate, patient, and basically begging the nation. You know, we are under attack as black people. We are being gunned down every day. And these officers are not being held accountable. And no charges, from Tamir Rice to my dad to Freddie Gray, you know, has been.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your reaction when, obviously, the events last week—two more incidents, two more deaths, caught on video, and yet nothing seems to be happening?

ERICA GARNER: No. All I’m hearing is conversation. We need legislation put into place. We need a special prosecutor. They’re just now using the special crimes prosecutor for a guy last week named [Delrawn Small]. And that was the undercover police officer who shot a black man.

AMY GOODMAN: Wayne Isaacs was the off-duty police officer who shot Delrawn Small.

ERICA GARNER: Yes. And it’s like, you know, we need some type of legislation put into place. We need a special prosecutor. Governor Cuomo put that as an executive order temporarily after my father passed away, and no one is talking about it. You know, no one is trying to make it permanent.

AMY GOODMAN: The reason we know exactly what happened in your father’s death is because of that videotape. The man who filmed the police killing of your father, Eric Garner, Ramsey Orta, is now headed to jail for four years on unrelated charges—making him the only person at the scene of Garner’s killing who will serve jail time. So, last week, Ramsey Orta took a plea deal on weapons and drug charges. He has said he’s been repeatedly arrested and harassed by police. Earlier this year, Ramsey Orta came to Democracy Now!, and we talked to him.

RAMSEY ORTA: Clearly, when they jumped out on me, that was the first thing that came out his mouth: "You filmed us, so now we’re filming you," because I asked, "Why do you have your cameras out?" When they jumped out on me, they had their phones in their hand, instead of a gun or anything, from my knowledge, was supposed to be in their hand. So I asked him: Why is he filming me? And he said, "Because you filmed us."

AMY GOODMAN: So that is Ramsey Orta speaking on Democracy Now! The significance of what he did? Soon after your dad was killed, at a memorial service that was held, there’s actual applause during the service for one man, for Ramsey Orta, who was sitting in the audience.

ERICA GARNER: Yes, it showed the courage to do it, and also he told the whole world, like he showed the whole world, you know, what exactly went on. If there wasn’t no video, you know, we wouldn’t know, like, he was killed. And we don’t have that from the police department. We don’t have transparency. I knew body cameras would be a bad idea if it wasn’t a federal legislation or some type of thing that says if you mess with this camera, if you turn it off or if anything goes wrong with this camera, you know, you will be held accountable. And now you’re hearing cases like the camera fell off, like in Alton Sterling case, or, you know, it’s basically our word against theirs.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Matt Taibbi, I wanted to bring you in. You’ve been doing research specifically on the Eric Garner case and trying to look at this whole issue of police killings. This whole issue of, as we’ve seen, of the—in the Alton Sterling case, where somebody does do independent filming, and they’re confiscated; meanwhile, the police cameras fall off—the importance of these cameras and the battle over cameras?

MATT TAIBBI: I mean, it’s critically important that citizens make these recordings. I think the Eric Garner case is a classic example of why this is necessary, because reports later surfaced that the official police report later that evening left out the fact that a chokehold had been used. And so, had there been no film of what happened, we might never have heard of this case. It would have gone down probably as an accident that took place, where a person who was in bad health simply gave out in the middle of a routine arrest. But we—you know, because we have that video, we saw exactly what happened. So it’s critically important that people make these videos. And I think what’s going on now is that everybody has cellphones, and for the first time people are seeing how common this is.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Erica Garner, about what’s happening now with the federal investigation? I mean, the police officer in the case was not charged. You did have a lawsuit, the family had a lawsuit, that was settled for $5.9 million. But the federal investigation, what is that? And this is two years now.

ERICA GARNER: Yes. It’s like the DOJ is dragging their feet. A couple of months ago, I sat in a civil liberties panel with representatives from the DOJ. And I kindly asked them, you know, face to face, as we was on the panel, you know, "What is taking so long? How come my family didn’t get no answers, any type of updates on my father’s case?" And they told me, you know, they will answer my question soon. Here we are almost to the two-year anniversary, and I hear—I see an article out about, you know, how two federal prosecutors from the DA in Brooklyn and two prosecutors from Washington is fighting over whether or not it’s enough evidence to go on. You know, the Brooklyn side is saying, "Well, we don’t have enough evidence," but the people from Washington are saying, "Well, we do. We want to push forward." And it’s up to Loretta Lynch to make that decision.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And even some of the basic information, two years later, is not out. For instance, the past record of the officer involved, Pantaleo, in terms of his excessive force decisions in—previously. What’s happened with that?

ERICA GARNER: No. I put in countless FOIA requests. Matt Taibbi helped me with some of the letters. And the response I got was letters stuck underneath my door or in my mailbox from the NYPD telling me I have to ask Daniel Pantaleo for permission to look at his records and that what I’m asking for is unwarranted. What can be more warranted than his daughter asking, just simply asking about what complaints was made against this man?

AMY GOODMAN: And, Matt Taibbi, if you could talk more about this and this major piece the Times did about how—this battle that’s going on within the Justice Department about whether to even continue with this investigation into the Eric Garner death?

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, if I could just follow up quickly, though, on this issue of the personnel records with—of Daniel Pantaleo. This has been a fight that’s been going on for two years. The Legal Aid Society last year filed suit and actually got a judge to order the Civilian Complaint Review Board to disclose very limited information about basically just how many substantiated abuse complaints there were in Pantaleo’s file. And the city at that point could have just released the information, but they chose to appeal, and they’re fighting this basically to the death. It’s now two years. It’s probably going to be three years before this is resolved. And the law is really not on the civilian side. It actually says that you need the express written permission of the police officer to obtain personnel records. There’s Section 50-a of the New York Civil Rights Code. It provides extraordinary protections to police officers. So, it’s extremely difficult for somebody, you know, even a family member of a victim, to get to those records. It’s almost impossible. And that’s one of the things that’s played out in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: Erica Garner, I wanted to get your response to Bernie Sanders now conceding that Hillary Clinton is the Democratic presumptive presidential nominee. You campaigned with Bernie Sanders. He made a TV commercial with you as the subject, taking on the issue of police brutality. What are your thoughts today, how your story, what happened to your dad, the issues you care about—are you also throwing your support to Hillary Clinton?

ERICA GARNER: I’ll throw my support towards any nominee, presidential nominee, that’s going to show me what the DOJ will look like, what they’re going to do about the crisis that’s going on in America right now, and that’s going to stand behind the chokehold bill. Letitia James has been putting that bill in for a while. She hasn’t gotten any support from anyone and—any other elected—

AMY GOODMAN: The Manhattan borough president.

ERICA GARNER: —any elected officials. And it’s like, you know, right now, every elected official in the House right now is up for election. And, you know, I say we refuse our vote until they hear our issues and fight for our issues.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And by chokehold bill, for those who are not aware, could you explain?

ERICA GARNER: This chokehold bill will make it illegal, all the way illegal, to—for the police officers to choke anyone. It’s in the policies of the New York Police Department policies, but it’s not actually a law.

AMY GOODMAN: According to The New York Times, the last time the federal government brought a deadly force case against an officer in New York was 1998, almost 20 years ago, when Francis Livoti stood trial, eventually was convicted of charges of choking to death a young Bronx man named Anthony Baez. I want to thank you both for being us. Erica Garner, even on this second anniversary of your father’s death, our condolences to you and your family. And thanks so much, Matt Taibbi, for being with us and pursuing this case for Rolling Stone and for your book.


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